Bad first half for North Carolina, a good second half and an 83-67 victory against Florida Gulf Coast. And so UNC, the top seed in the East, is off the second round of the NCAA tournament. Here's the story I wrote.
Three quick thoughts/observations here from PNC Arena:
1. There was a lot of frustration from a lot of people about the first half.
If you'll remember Florida Gulf Coast trailed by just a point, 41-40, at halftime. Roy Williams called it “one of the worst halves we've played all year.” Isaiah Hicks said (at least twice, when I was around) that UNC looked “horrible” in the first 20 minutes.
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Brice Johnnson said simply that “It was bad” and that UNC “didn't play worth anything” in the first half. So yes: not good. A lot of frustration.
The most frustrating thing, for UNC, was the defensive ineptitude. Florida Gulf Coast shot 60 percent in the first half and made a bunch of layups. The Eagles outscored UNC in the paint 22-16 in the first half. That's something that never should have happened. But …
2. The Tar Heels got it together quickly in the second half.
Probably couldn't ask for a better start to the second half than what UNC provided: a Marcus Paige 3, followed by a Joel Berry transition layup. Those two plays got the Tar Heels going and seemed to deflate Florida Gulf Coast, which was seeking to become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1.
Florida Gulf Coast already made some history three years ago by becoming the first No. 15 seed to reach a regional semifinal. And more history seemed in reach at halftime on Thursday. But not for long – not after UNC started the second half the way it did.
About 2 ½ minutes into the second half UNC's lead was back into double digits and the Eagles never threatened to make it a game after UNC built a 20-point lead with about 11 ½ minutes to play. As bad as the first half was for the Tar Heels, the first nine minutes of the second were pretty good.
3. Take note of a key defensive change that UNC made in the second half.
The Tar Heels adjusted the way the played ball screens in the second half. In the first they attempted to hedge off of screens and switch. In the second they kept their big guys in position down low and asked guards to fight through screens.
The strategy was simple: Force Florida Gulf Coast to take perimeter shots and keep the Eagles out of the lane, where they'd done so much damage in the first half. Marcus Paige is good at explaining basketball so we'll let him explain the strategic shift:
“The only thing we changed that wasn't effort-related was our pick-and-roll coverage,” Paige said. “We softened it and kept our bigs kind of back around the paint area, because they weren't hurting us from the outside. So we just put more pressure on our guards to get through screens themselves and handle the perimeter to allow our bigs to control the paint better.”
How well did it work? Well, Florida Gulf Coast scored 10 points in the paint in the second half. And Brice Johnson blocked six of his eight shots after halftime, when he was camped out in the lane. So it worked well.
–If you sensed that Johnson was frustrated with Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward, that's because he was. Meeks struggled. He missed seven of his nine attempts from the field, with most of those misses coming from very close range. Here was Johnson talking afterward about Meeks:
“There were a couple of plays where he just didn't jump. He was right there under the basket, all he had to do was jump a little bit. It's kind of frustrating, because you want to be able to make those easy ones like that.
“I know he's kind of frustrated but at the end of the day you got to be able to convert those. Those do add up throughout the course of the game. I know I missed a couple myself, but in close moments like that, you have the ball in your hands, that close to the basket, you got to be able to convert those.”
Harsh words? Maybe. But Johnson is right: Meeks has to make some (most) of those shots he missed on Thursday. Especially on this stage, on which mistakes are magnified.
-Speaking of Meeks' jumping ability someone asked Roy Williams about it, too. Specifically he was asked why Meeks doesn't jump. Said Roy:
“I have no idea because if I knew, I would have already changed it. … I think right now, it's a big frustration.”
-UNC, by the way, has now won 28 consecutive NCAA tournament games in North Carolina.
-Entering the Kirsch Nugget portion of this, Florida Gulf Coast did something in the first half that no team had done against UNC in the NCAA tournament in 20 years. It had been that long since a team shot 60 percent against UNC in a half in the tournament. Texas Tech did it in the second half in 1996. Also: that Texas Tech game was 20 years ago today. I was a young man of 14. My, how time flies.
-UNC finished with a 20-0 edge in fast break points. Second-most this season (26 against Davidson).
-And remember this stat: UNC is 21-1 when it scores at least 10 fast break points. So that's 8-5 when that doesn't happen.
-The Florida Gulf Coast mascot is weird. Just a giant, smiling Eagle, with enormous teeth. What's he so happy about, anyway? It's unsettling, seeing this thing leering at you from the baseline. Maybe that's just me.
The Tar Heels' favorite time of the day on Friday will be a little after 3 p.m. That's when they meet the media. Until then …